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Christian Beauty Myths

Wednesday, 25 April 2012  | Christine Redwood

I love beautiful things, like hand-blown glass from Venice, silks, impressionist paintings, sunsets, gifts from loved ones, fantastical architecture, music, expressionist movies, and theatre. Like most people I am moved by beauty. Do you remember when you could just appreciate a moment of beauty? Then there’s the turning point when another picture enters your awareness.  As a young teenager my friends and I started to become aware about how much beauty mattered. We expressed this by painting a picture on two blocks of canvas, a picture of a girl smiling. Then we spilt her face and on the other side we tried to capture in swirling purples and blues her dark thoughts, her sadness. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, we wanted to dig somehow beneath the surface and see what was there.

Beauty was no longer something to appreciate for a moment, but an ideal to which we felt the pressure to measure up. We were becoming aware we were being judged based on our looks. Girls started to hide now when the camera came out and started to wear make-up to cover up ‘imperfections’. We’d sit at lunchtime and the conversation would be full of examining the labels of our food, with girls throwing up in the toilets when dieting failed. There’s a song by Clare Bowditch in which she sings heartbreakingly, ‘I went on my first diet was I was eight years old, ten, twelve, through to twenty-one when I came undone, tell me I am more than this’ ("Your Own Kind of Girl," in Modern Day Addiction (2010)).

‘Ugly’—that is how I labelled myself. It is actually very hard to admit that, the thought buried so deep, but repeating on and on in my head through the years. Images were all around me of beautiful people loving beautiful people and I stared back at my reflection, finding fault.

It’s a precarious position for women. There is balancing act of using your looks to gain a place, gain a marriage where there might be security, secure a foothold in the workplace, to virtually ‘sell your body’ in exchange for money. As I was writing this article, I started reading The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, written in 1991, yet still scarily relevant. Wolf argues that the beauty pressure I have experienced is promoted so that women ‘will remain vulnerable to outside approval’, shrinking their self-esteem and affecting their attempts to work, form relationships, and participate in society. A woman has to balance walking the line between attractive and unattractive, a standard they can never hope to reach, and if they do… well, the line is always shifting, putting women off balance.

Is it any different for the Christian woman? I believe this line implicitly runs through our churches. We take on similar values to our culture with a religious veneer. I have heard of a church demand women wear make-up if they are leading up the front, and there are other churches that chide women for clothes deemed too revealing. At the same time, Christian men speak about how attractiveness is the first thing they look for when it comes to dating. Women must navigate to avoid the labels from ‘ugly’ to ‘slut’. The scrutiny is always on what a woman looks like.

Too often, how a woman looks is examined through the gaze of the male. This happens not only in the media, which has been documented by the feminist movement, but in Christian circles too.  I have heard more than once men telling women what men think about their appearance, and never the other way around. As I have listened, I found myself further locked in chains. There’s no way to move as I read in Christian books how males have all these sexual thoughts all the time and now everything I wear feels dangerous. Meanwhile, a raunch culture is developing in the wider world where women think to be liberated and attractive is to pose in pornographic shots. Why is it that I feel oppressed watching women bear it all on TV, and also feel oppressed when men tell me they can’t control their thoughts and as a result I have to cover up?

As I’ve been thinking through my reaction, I realized it’s not necessarily that I disagree with the need to be modest. But my reasons are not at first because it will help men. I think it helps women. If we pander to the pressures to be seen as sex objects then we lose. Often, whether we are aware of it or not, that’s what we’re doing, hoping people will think we’re attractive, sexy females worthy of attention.  But women are more than just bodies to be admired. Surely there is more to me than just what clothes I wear. Yet Christians, too, reduce women to what they wear with a list of dos and don’ts.

If we’re going to have the conversation then let’s open it up to more than giving women regulations. Let’s talk about why women dress in certain ways. Let’s talk about the pressure to conform to a look. Let’s apply it across the board to both men and women. Why aren’t guys told not to wear tight jeans, or not to make comments whether a girl is ‘hot’ or not? Why does the rule just stop at how much skin someone is showing? How about asking how much money we are encouraged to spend on keeping up with fashion or to keep looking young? How about asking ethical questions about where and how such products are made?  How about asking how Christians express their sexuality beyond the standard “Don’t have sex before you are married”. Women seem to be scolded from both directions when it comes to our appearance.

I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ sets us free.

The Bible describes one that God would send that would have no form or majesty that we should desire him (Isaiah 53:2). The New Testament identifies that suffering servant as Jesus. Jesus was one who sought the unlovely, he who was despised and rejected by those around him. At the pinnacle of his mission, his own people thought he was a failure. He was mocked, and found weak dying on a cross, ugly. This is where the good news is to be found.

God loves us; He who knows our ugliness—not on the outside but on the inside in the swirls of purple and blue paint, where all those false thoughts obsess, judge, and punish. He shakes his head: ‘You spend so much time covering up blemishes on the outside that you give no concern for who you are becoming.’ Women who are always worrying about what others think when they look at them have no time left to see the person they are interacting with, their thoughts are always on how they will be perceived, not on how that other person is going. How can we love others when we are focused on punishing ourselves? ‘I am here’, says Jesus, ‘in the midst of this beautiful ugly world. I am on that cross dying so that you might be set free.’

God’s grace is breaking into the world. He is in the business of transforming our person, and it can start now if we will allow his Spirit into our darkest places. Sometimes it begins by naming and examining the thoughts that are defining us. I had to confront the thought that said I was ugly and therefore unlovable. Through prayerful wrestling, I had to reject those thoughts. It is possible for someone to love me. God has shown me that when Jesus laid down his life and he knows me completely. How ridiculous is it that I need the approval of others based on the most superficial criteria of them all, my looks! 

Women cope with this in a myriad of ways. I also had to reject the coping mechanism I used which was a ‘gnostic’ tendency to divide my soul/mind from my body. I told myself the body doesn’t matter, but that’s a lie too.  Our bodies as well as our minds matter: how we use them and think about them matters.  As Christians, we need to be naming the lies in our society like the beauty myth that distorts a woman’s body and make sure we are not promoting it in own ‘Christian’ way.

I wish we didn’t have to talk about it, that it wasn’t an issue. But I fear that this pressure to conform to a certain look often drives women away from been public members in society, it perhaps even stops women from being public figures in our churches. That is a tragedy when we have so much to contribute.  

Peter re-imagines beauty:

‘Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair; and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.’ (1 Peter 3:3-4)

The point we need to emphasise is that we are precious in God’s sight.  We need to teach that. We need to practice loving and affirming the wide range of people found in the church. I’m neither always beautiful nor always ugly: I am me, and I’m learning to be more comfortable with who I am, and focusing on God transforming my inner self which flows into how I appear.

Personally, I need to reflect a lot more on gender, sexuality, and beauty. I feel like I am scratching the surface. How can we appreciate and celebrate beauty without it becoming an obsession? How do we interact with each other as males and females? How do we begin to imagine a world without a beauty myth: what would women look like then? What I do know is that sometimes I meet a person and it’s like God’s Spirit is just behind their eyes, they shimmer with something else, a beauty that comes as they love. That is what we are called to. That’s what we as a church should celebrate first and foremost when asked ‘What is beautiful?’  

Bowditch, Clare.   "You're Own Kind of Girl." In Modern Day Addiction, 2010.
Ethridge, Shannon, and Stephen Arterburn.   Every Young Woman's Battle : Guarding Your Mind, Heart, and Body in a Sex-Saturated World. Colorado Springs, Colo.: WaterBrook Press, 2004.
Levy, Ariel.   Female Chauvinist Pigs : Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. London: Free, 2005.
Wolf, Naomi.   The Beauty Myth: Vintage, 1991. 

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